Trump announces houses of worship will be deemed "essential services"

Posted at 1:06 PM, May 22, 2020

President Trump announced Friday afternoon that his administration would declare houses of worship "essential services," allowing them to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"The people are demanding to go to their church and synagogue, to go to their mosque," Mr. Trump said. He said the U.S. needed "more prayer."

He also said he would "override" governors who did not agree to reopen houses of worship.

"If they don't do it, I will override the governors," Mr. Trump said. It is unclear how he would be able to "override" the governors, though, since constitutional experts agree that Mr. Trump does not have the authority to reopen state economies against the will of governors.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who briefed reporters after the president's announcement, declined to explain what Mr. Trump meant when he said he would "override" governors.

"That's up to the governors," she said about reopening houses of worship.

Mr. Trump announced earlier on Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would provide its guidelines for reopening churches "very soon."

"We want our churches and our places of faith and worship, we want them to open, and CDC is going to be I believe today they're going to be issuing a very strong recommendation and I'm going to be talking about that in a little while," Mr. Trump said.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force leader, Dr. Deborah Birx, spoke reporters along with McEnany, and advised that people with comorbidities in high-risk COVID-19 areas might want to "wait another week" before visiting a church, mosque or synagogue. Birx added, "There is a way to social distance in places of worship."

The Justice Department has already been weighing in on conflicts between churches and state and local leaders over social distancing during the pandemic. In late April, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to federal prosecutors to keep watch for state and local directives that could infringe upon constitutional rights and civil liberties, including measures that may discriminate against religious institutions. Barr wrote that if a state or local ordinance crossed the line "from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court."

For instance, the department is siding with a Virginia church challenging Governor Ralph Northam's executive orders limiting the size of in-person gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, which the church says unfairly applies to houses of worship and other religious institutions.